Best '93 Aphorism Mixes Kenny Rogers And Bible

THIS IS a bad period for those of us who collect aphorisms. The last bright one I can recall came from Texas Gov. Ann Richards, who hailed the so-called "Year of the Woman" by saying "The roosters may crow, but the hens deliver the eggs." (Actually, she said "deliver the goods," but "eggs" sounds better, so Sen. Dianne Feinstein and almost everybody else quotes it that way.)

Jack Kemp has been trying his best. "People don't care that you know until they know that you care," he said. This one is a double switch, similar to the shot Adlai Stevenson once took at Norman Vincent Peale. Comparing Dr. Peale unflatteringly with St. Paul, Stevenson said: "I find Paul appealing and Peale appalling."

Political writer Sidney Blumenthal offered us this one: "California politics is one long casting call," which dovetails nicely with "Politics is show business for ugly people." That was said by a Clinton campaign aide, Paul Begala.

These remarks fall somewhat below the established level of political aphorisms. Who can forget such classics as: "If you've seen one slum, you've seen them all" (Spiro Agnew); "Small minds ask small questions" (John Sununu on the press); "When the president does it, that means it's not illegal" (Richard Nixon); and "Sometimes you just have to go above the written law" (Fawn Hall, aphorist and shredder).

Other top aphorisms include, "Get an elbow, give an elbow" (Sen. Bill Bradley's reworking of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth"), and former Sen. Eugene McCarthy's helpful aphoristic advice to candidates: "Never say anything in a national campaign that anyone might remember."

The pithiest Washington saying in recent years is "Hanging works" (Bill Bennett), and the gassiest comes from Sen. Bob Kerrey: "The individual can approach the limitless."

Alas, the individual can approach the banal, too. The Kerrey comment brings to mind the sentiments of our national tree-hugger and drum-beater, Robert Bly, who once observed, "When you're in denial about your own father, you can deny the budget deficit."

Here are a few others I noticed in 1993: "Instant gratification takes too long" (writer and actress Carrie Fisher); "A drunk person's words are often a sober person's thoughts" (Jesse Jackson, in the aftermath of the Long Island Rail Road massacre); "Obviously, crime pays or there wouldn't be any crime" (G. Gordon Liddy); and "I have seen the future and it's much like the present, only longer" (former major league pitcher Dan Quisenberry).

For us tender-minded journalists, there's a long and wounding one from press critic Ben Bagdikian: "Trying to be a first-rate reporter on the average American newspaper is like trying to play Bach's Saint Matthew Passion on a ukulele."

This is not an era of presidential aphorisms. Bill Clinton lacks the knack. His predecessor was always groping toward them and missing. For instance, George Bush once said: "America is doing well. Flag sales are doing well." What he meant to say is something like: "What's good for flag sales is good for America."

Still, George Bush wins the grand prize for best aphorism of the year. Last January, during his last week in office, he tried to quote a familiar line about poker from a Kenny Rogers song, "You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em." But it came out like this: "There's a time to go, a time to stay, a time to fold 'em." He thus became the first outgoing president to combine Kenny Rogers and Ecclesiastes into one pop-biblical aphoristic farewell.

Who can top that? (Copyright, 1993, John Leo) John Leo's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times.